Maze-ing grace

Membranous Labyrinth is Chairman Kato's new audio-visual installation about emotional memory. Flora caught up with the producer as its spongy surfaces open

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Incarnating the physical and sensorial representations of the intricate neurological workings of memory, artist Kato Wong (who works under the moniker Chairman Kato for his music) and designer Aya Arden have formed a collaboration to build a large-scale installation under a railway bridge. Aptly entitled, Membranous Labyrinth, the immersive piece incorporating sculpture, film and sound explores the theme of emotional memory and forces us to confront difficult questions about mortality and transience.

Constructed from the results of a chance encounter in Geneva with a retired doctor who sought solace in Switzerland to recuperate from his past, they devised an idea to help the British ex-pat reflect on his experiences. Armed with only a battered microphone and cassette recorder, Aya kept an inventory of his most profound moments during his medical work, documenting how the ‘abnormal became the normal’, having faced life and death on a daily basis. Upon her return to London, Aya and Kato then shot raw footage from a hospital's resuscitation room, utilising the obsolete format of Super 8 to evoke memory's subjective imperfections and impermanence.

Inviting the visitors to take their own paths as they wander through their structure mimicking the neurological models they studied, Membranous Labyrinth is a fascinating collection of experiences arranged as the convoluted paths of emotional memory.

Dazed Digital: Is this the first time you've taken on such large scale a project? How long did the whole thing take to come together?
Chairman Kato: Definitely. A couple of years ago, I took over a basement in a Spitalfields tea house and transformed it with Chris Stoneman. That was hard work but looking back in the context of this piece it was invaluable experience. We only realised with Membranous Labyrinth how big an undertaking it was when we started the construction. The place is massive! The opportunity came along in December and it's taken 4 months of solid, unrelenting work with just the two of us to put it together. I've forgotten how to socialise and my clothes are ruined.

DD: How did you attempt to represent such intangible subjects in the physical form?
Chairman Kato: We started with the visuals which act as a direct complement to the central sound piece. My dad is a doctor and helped us to get access to a resuscitation room in a hospital, which is where we shot the raw footage at 7.30am one morning in the new year. It would have been a lot easier to use a digital camera but we were very specific about our preference for using Super 8mm. Super 8 is almost obsolete itself and therefore has strong connections with memory and the past. We edited the loops in a similar manner to the audio - quite rough and telegraphic.

The structure was initially born of a desire to create something transportative, something that leads you through a collection of experiences. Labyrinths and mazes are usually elaborate structures and we could relate that to the convoluted paths that we sometimes have to take to process emotional memory. There's an area in the brain called the hippocampus which was of interest to us because apparently emotion is processed and stored there. According to our research information is processed in a unidirectional manner and that was appropriate to the arrangement of a labyrinth. The railway arch itself was quite dirty and our structure has inevitably been weathered over the last few weeks-  I quite like that though, it feels like it has become a part of the archway, entering into a life cycle of its own.

DD: What was the most interesting thing you learnt via the research undertaken to help formulate the exhibition? (or was it entirely focused/based on the account of one man's personal experiences?)
Chairman Kato: There were different strands to the research; the filming was done to bring the subject matter alive and help us (and the audience) visualise the sort of environments where life and death takes place. The research into neurology was an exciting time because we were able to draw on it during the design stages. To see it built now is still quite strange.

Any piece of art that a person works on though, be it a painting or an installation, is a very personal project and this is no different. It's led to a lot of interesting discussions and I'm sure I speak for both of us when I say it has been very thought provoking.

DD: Have you always had a fascination with the themes of mortality and memory?
Chairman Kato: I am very interested in the subjectivity of memory and its imperfection. So much of what we think we remember clearly is strongly coloured by our feelings and prior experiences. That to me is a creative strength of memory - its imperfection is what makes it so individual. I tend to prefer photography, for example, that chooses to imply ambiguity and obscures its subject. It leaves you space for interpretation. And I'm drawn to music with texture and intrigue more than I am to clean, digital sounding stuff for the same reasons.

DD: How do you want the audience to feel upon leaving the exhibition?
Chairman Kato: I learnt a long time ago from my experience of releasing music that you have to let go of second-guessing people's reactions to your work. Also it's more interesting when you get unexpected reactions. I will just be pleased if people take their time to absorb the imagery and sounds and be led on the path that we have laid out. Hopefully there's plenty of material there to warrant spending some time in those corridors. Having said all that it's a topic which I feel resonates with us all so I imagine it will provoke some strong responses.

Private View Friday 22nd March, 7-10pm; Open on Fri/Sat/Sun from 22nd March to 14th April; Free entry; Under the Hackney Downs railway bridge, Five Points Brewery, 3 Institute Place, E8 1JE

Photo by David Amanor

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